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I caught up with Maria Roe Roshni on a hot Thursday morning, bonding over the merciless Chennai heat and my desperate need for caffeine.

Roe is a music producer, music arranger and vocalist, whose team works regularly with leading music directors in India, including A.R.Rahman, Anirudh Ravichander, and other top musicians. With a degree from the Berklee School of Music (Boston, MA), Roe began her career in India by teaching at a local music school. 

Some times teaching is the only option that you have to help you make money as an aspiring musician. I studied music production and arrangement professionally, and when I moved back to India, I got a job as a teacher in a local academy for music. Eventually, I moved to A.R.Rahman’s KM Academy of Music as an instructor.”

Inevitably, A.R. Rahman noticed Roe for her interesting and different work while performing with her students at the Academy.  One day, acclaimed director Mani Rathnam called and invited her to record for the heroine’s theme in his upcoming movie Kadal (Tamil, 2013). She also worked on the background score for the film with her choir. The film was a musical chart-topper, with her song Adiye gaining instant popularity due to its unique usage of gospel music arrangements in a romantic song. Subsequently, she worked with A.R.Rahman on his ‘Thai Manne Vanakkam’ concert series. Eventually, she began teaching his daughter and son music, and became their ‘family vocal trainer’, as she calls herself. Her latest work with A.R.Rahman was Mani Rathnam’s OK Kanmani (Tamil, 2015). 

Roe runs a 17-piece orchestra, a group of musicians and vocalists who work for her. I ask if they are full-time musicians. “Some are full time, some are not. All the guys have day jobs”, she tells me. I ask her where they find her. “They hear about the choir and get in touch on social media. We have an informal audition. I say informal because we essentially make sure that the mental vibe is a good match. This is a team effort and I like to make sure that we only take on team players”.

What about vocal arrangement, and its potential as a career in India? “As a vocal arranger, my part is different from just another singer or performer. Not everyone wants to do it, or even use it. It’s only been introduced in Indian cinema in the past two years, which was good for me, I dove right in, but nobody had even heard of it. It is still coming up.”

When I ask her about trying to make it in the Indian music industry, Roe’s animated eyes turn reflective, her smile breaking into a slight sigh. “Waiting for a break is the hardest part. It squeezes you dry. I am not in the ‘danger zone’ any longer, so I feel okay. But it is hard. It is lonely, and it can be a long wait. It’s a battle everyday, but mostly with yourself, with your talent and confidence. I am sure it is like that for anyone who works in a creative field.

Does she think it is hard being a woman in this industry? “Somehow, there is a connection between being social and getting opportunity. It is an industry thing. It is a creative industry. Several women do not socialize spontaneously, but those who do are frowned upon. It is a gender-related thing. You can suddenly be snubbed for trying to stand out, while your male counterparts do it comfortably, and are even lauded for it. There is a huge dichotomy in the way you are perceived as a ‘social’ woman seeking work as opposed to a man, especially in this industry. There is a fair amount of sexism. Say in reality television, or in the smaller scenes, the way you’re perceived can be very different. However, I have seen, in real work, your work has nothing to do with your gender.

I ask her if she set out with a plan to work her way into success. She giggles, but then frowns. “I think what I am lacking, is a plan. I still don’t have a plan, but I have found that mine is one of those patterns that people’s lives have, where I don’t have a plan and my life never sticks to one. I have worked terribly hard on auditions that I never booked, and have woken up to try out for an opening that I booked in less than a minute.” And how does she find the opportunities? “Nowadays, I don’t have to audition. In fact, I judge auditions. It’s very exciting and a huge learning experience for me. I was one of the judges for The Voice India on AXN. I traveled south India as one of the preliminary judges, choosing the people to feature on the TV auditions.” 

Aside from the music, Roe says one of the most enjoyable aspects of her job is being an entrepreneur. “I manage my brand, my people, and I promote and market us as a team. I love that my job consists completely of dealing with people. I love waking up and not knowing whom I have to work with that day. It is a complete team game. You need to know everyone’s weaknesses and strengths. I have worked hard to earn that trust to be in-charge. Even big music directors trust me with my work, and nobody interferes with my arrangements. As a team, our work is very efficient. We can record an entire album in a day. We learn the lines, arrange and record even 8 songs in a day.

If there was one piece of advice she'd give her younger self back in her struggling days, Roe promptly suggests, “Find a mentor. I love mentoring everyone on my team, and I see how much it helps them, it makes me so happy. If I had that one person I would’ve had a different path to success. I was alone. It made me stronger, and it was a learning experience all right, but it was lonely and scary. I would have worked differently with a mentor.”

I went into teaching because I needed that money. I didn’t have the time to sit and work on my skill, make demos and send them out. If I had done what I am doing now 5 years ago I would’ve been here 3 years ago. But I guess everything happens for a reason.

But are times changing for aspiring musicians and people who choose alternative careers? “It’s definitely shaping up slowly, the climate is changing. In India, you can live and die as a struggling musician who had a full time job and career in a different field, because there was no path towards a mentorship, or an avenue to hone and demo your talent. But that is changing now. Social media is a huge support. You can find opportunity, mentorship, support groups, all of this in your own city using social media.

So what is the Roe tag line?. “Shine Bright!” she says. “Once you make it you’ve made it. There’s no in-between. Believe in yourself and keep working on your skill and yourself. It’s going to pay off.

Shortly after our meeting, Roe was on a tour of Malaysia for Astro TV as a music-talent judge, and is back in Chennai, producing and recording music for composers across India.  Find her exclusive work on her YouTube channel here

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